Free Markets, Free People

Economy

Looking into the October unemployment numbers

This is one of those cases where the headline numbers and claims of new jobs are so totally out of step with reality, that it’s hard to believe how badly the banner numbers reverse the actual employment situation.  In fact, I’d argue that this month highlights perfectly why the Bureau of Labor Statistics needs to thoroughly revise the way the Employment Situation is reported.

To understand why, let’s look at the “A” Tables of the Employment Situation report. Take a careful look at the “Employed” line in the table.  Last month, there were (in thousands) 139,391 persons employed.  This month, there were (in thousands) 139,061 employed. So, non-farm payrolls may have increased by 151,000 jobs, but there are 330,000 fewer employed Americans than there were last month.

The total civilian, non-institutional adult population, in thousands, was 238,530 this month.  With the historical long-term trend rate of labor force participation of 66.2%, that means the actual size of the labor force should be 157,907.  With only 139,061 persons actually employed, the real unemployment rate is actually 13.6%, up from 13.2% last month, and from 12.8% in May.

The current labor force participation rate of 64.5 is the lowest since November of 1984.

Essentially, the employment situation worsened last month, rather than getting better. The only reason it looks better is because so many people are just dropping out of the labor force. When they do so, they magically disappear from the official banner statistics.

What is actually happening is that job growth is not keeping up with population growth, so every month, real employment is declining. It’s nice to see that employers have added 151,000 payroll jobs, but that simply isn’t a rate that keeps pace with job force growth. To give you an idea of how this is working, since Oct 09, the civilian non-institutional adult population has increased by 1,980 thousand people, while at the same time, the number of employed has risen by 819 thousand.  That means that there is a deficit of 1,161 thousand jobs that has built up over the last year.

The banner statistics of payroll jobs and unemployment rate are increasingly out of step with the true employment situation.

Election post-mortem

An incredible election night by any measure.  The obvious question that pundits will be concentrating on is “what does it mean”?

Well I think there is consensus on both sides that it doesn’t mean that the voters love Republicans.  Even establishment Republicans are acknowledging that fact.  And Marco Rubio made that clear in his acceptance speech where he called this a “second chance” not an embrace of the GOP.

So that leaves us with a number of other options to consider.  What needs to be kept in mind is this is the third consecutive wave election and in each case the party holding the White House suffered losses.  That’s unprecedented.  And this particular midterm is the largest shift of seats since 1936 (update: House numbers now have a projected 242 seats on the GOP side, a net of +64 – historic or as one Democrat strategist said, a defeat for Democrats of “biblical proportion”).  So one meme that isn’t going to fly is this election is “no big deal”.  Democrats got spanked and got spanked hard.  They have a lot of work to do to win back voters.

Another thing that seems to be a developing narrative is that this is a repudiation of the Obama agenda.  I think that’s true to an extent.  The biggest driver of the dissatisfaction with Democrats is the health care law as  indicated by polls. And they are certainly mad about the deficit spending.  But as Charles Krauthammer said last night, “this isn’t a failure of communication by the Democrats, this is a failure of policy”.  So it would seem that at least part of the vote was a repudiation of the president despite claims by some on the left that its only about the economy.

That said, part of it is also about the economy.  Historically the party in power doesn’t do well in a down economy.  So that too must be factored in to the formula.  While much of that is beyond government’s control, that which it could impact was perceived as poorly done.  Very poorly done.  That exacerbated the loss.  And, with the focus on health care reform, most Americans thought that the legislative priorities were wrong as well.  Voters have historically turned to the GOP to handle economic matters. But this is still no mandate for the GOP.

Finally voter anger hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just taking a breather.  Again, watch the direction of the country polls over the coming two years.  It’s an interesting set up in DC now.  Democrats actually would have been better off if the Senate had gone to the Republicans.  They still control it and the Presidency and that leaves the onus on them as we head toward 2012.  It also gives the GOP a free hand to pass whatever it wants in the House, regardless of where it goes, if anywhere, and make the case that they tried to reform what the people wanted reformed and Democrats (in the Senate and the President) stood in their way (reverse the “obstructionists” claim).

I think, after last night, that 2012 is definitely in play.  It will be interesting to see how both parties react.  I’m eagerly awaiting the Obama presser at 1 pm today when we’ll hear the first reaction from the President.  But as always with him, judge him by his actions, not his words.  His words have become empty rhetoric that many times doesn’t support what he ends up doing.

~McQ

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German austerity v. US profligacy – guess which one is working out best?

While the US remains mired in recession (despite the claim its over) and the usual suspects are claiming we need to spend even more money we don’t have, Germany has managed a minor miracle. Eschewing a large stimulus package and instead opting for austerity and pro-business legislation, it has seen almost the opposite of US results:

"Although October’s decline in unemployment turned out weaker than expected, the underlying trend in the German labor market clearly remains one of rapid improvement on the back of strong economic growth," said Aline Schuiling from ABN Amro.

Data on Europe’s biggest economy over the past week has been bullish, signaling its unexpectedly strong recovery could hold up in the face of signs of fragility in the global economy.

Consumer morale remains at its highest level since May 2008 going into November on expectations for a further rebound, a survey by GfK market research group showed on Tuesday.

Business sentiment hit its highest level in 3-1/2 years in October and firms’ expectations also improved, a survey showed last week, and the corporate outlook continued to improve on Thursday.

As I’ve pointed out in many other posts, this isn’t rocket science. People respond to incentives. People respond positively to positive incentives. That’s what is happening in Germany which has economically battled back first from the absorption of East Germany and now a deep recession to a position of prosperity and growing economic stability.

Meanwhile here we’re about to go into QE2 all while popinjays like Paul Krugman encourage us to go more deeply in debt as a country because everyone knows that government spends money much more wisely and well than do individuals.

~McQ

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TARP IG blasts program

So much for administration spin about the effectiveness of TARP. Neil Barofsky, TARP’s special inspector general, deals the administration narrative a shot to the head. In effect, he tells Americans angry about the program they have a right to be:

…[M]any Americans to continue to view TARP with anger, cynicism, and mistrust. While some of that hostility may be misplaced, much of it is based on entirely legitimate concerns about the lack of transparency, program mismanagement and flawed decision-making processes that continue to plague the program.

Some specifics:

“When Treasury refuses for more than a year to require TARP recipients to account for the use of TARP funds, or claims that Capital Purchase Program participants were “healthy, viable” institutions knowing full well that some are not, or when it provides hundreds of billions of dollars in TARP assistance to institutions, and then relies on those same institutions to self-report any violations of their obligations to TARP, it damages the public’s trust to a degree that is difficult to repair.”

Ya think? And you remember all the rhetoric about forestalling foreclosure? Uh, FAIL:

[T]he most specific of TARP’s Main Street goals, “preserving homeownership,” has so far fallen woefully short, with TARP’s portion of the Administration’s mortgage modification program yielding only approximately 207,000 (out of a total of 467,000) ongoing permanent modifications since TARP’s inception, a number that stands in stark contrast to the 5.5 million homes receiving foreclosure filings and more than 1.7 million homes that have been lost to foreclosure since January 2009.

Now, I’m not agreeing that any of that should have been done – this is about claims the administration and Democrats made for spending the money.

Question: where has the money really gone?

Oh, and you remember “spurring lending” as a key reason for TARP? Not so much.  In fact, not much at all:

“TARP has failed to ‘increase lending,’ with small businesses in particular unable to secure badly needed credit. Indeed, even now, overall lending continues to contract, despite the hundreds of billions of TARP dollars provided to banks with the express purpose to increase lending.”

Meanwhile in the "moral hazard" department – success:

“…[I]ncreased moral hazard and concentration in the financial industry continue to be a TARP legacy. The biggest banks are bigger than ever, fueled by Government support and taxpayer-assisted mergers and acquisitions. And the repeated statements that the Government would stand by these banks during the financial crisis has given a significant advantage to the larger “too big to fail” banks, as reflected in their enhanced credit ratings borne from a market perception that the Government will still not let these institutions fail, although the impact of this cost may be blunted by recently enacted regulatory reform.”

Almost a trillion dollars and they really don’t know where it has gone. Additionally, they’ve not at all achieved the goals for which they tried to tell the public this money was so damned important.

Lack of transparency?  Mismanagement?  Flawed decision-making?  Why weren’t those things included in the administration’s spin. 

And we just let them take health care from us as well.

Nice.

~McQ

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You can pay me now or you can pay me later …

This speech by Dave Cote, CEO of Honeywell (to the Chamber of Commerce) was forwarded to me by a friend.  It is one of the best summaries of our fiscal/financial problems I’ve seen in a while.  Usually, when I see a 34 minute video I’m loath to give the time necessary to watch it, but this one is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. Take the time.

Cote lays out in words and charts our coming fiscal train wreck if we don’t do something “proactively”.  As he says in the speech, we can do what is necessary to solve the problem or at some point, the bond market (as it did in the case of Greece) will do it for us.  One will be painful, the other is catastrophic. 

You can read the speech here if you prefer.   And if you’d like a copy of the charts and visuals, they’re here.

Dale’s post below about “Following the House of Bourbon” is essentially given facts and figures by this presentation.  For instance, the discussion about China’s defense expenditures being paid for by our interest payments.  Cotes points out that if spending remains unchanged through 2020, we’ll be paying almost a trillion dollars in interest a year.   At this point, foreign governments own 45% of our 9 trillion in debt.  China owns at least a trillion of it.  And there’s no end in sight of the sale of government debt here.

The last point Cote makes that echoes Dales warning is about how quickly this will happen if we don’t do something.

While the problem builds slowly and inexorably, financial markets respond abruptly. When that decline does happen, it won’t be a case of minor monthly changes that give us 15 months to adjust. The hurt will come overnight as the herd moves against us. And then it’s too late.

That could happen at any time without warning triggered, as Dale points out, by some seemingly insignificant occurrence that normally would receive only passing attention. I don’t think, for the most part, people understand that very important point or they’d be beating down the doors of Congress. 

Cotes also addresses “political will”  and whether we have the will to do what is necessary (and endure the political consequences) to get this nation’s fiscal policy on the road to sanity.  He notes that the public is more engaged now that in quite some time (and that’s a good thing) but are really focused on the wrong things (although they do recognize the gravity of the situation, he thinks they’re focused on fairly irrelevant portions of it).

The distilled point of course is politicians only have the spine the public gives them and unless they’re assured the public is behind doing what has to be done to solve the crisis, their risk-averse nature will have them continue to kick the can down the road. 

Anyway, highly recommended.  It will give you a great idea of what our situation is, where we’re headed and what the results of continuing to ignore it promise.

~McQ

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Paul “one-note” Krugman still pushing for more stimulus

Krugman’s latest approach to demanding more deficit spending – er, excuse me, “stimulus” spending – centers on the impending election.  The Democrats wouldn’t be about to see an electoral tsunami if they’d just listened to him and spent more.  The economy would be recovering and we’d only be talking about nominal losses in the mid-term as is historically the case with just about every President.

Says Krugman:

The real story of this election, then, is that of an economic policy that failed to deliver. Why? Because it was greatly inadequate to the task.

And he further states:

If you look back now at the economic forecast originally used to justify the Obama economic plan, what’s striking is that forecast’s optimism about the economy’s ability to heal itself. Even without their plan, Obama economists predicted, the unemployment rate would peak at 9 percent, then fall rapidly. Fiscal stimulus was needed only to mitigate the worst — as an “insurance package against catastrophic failure,” as Lawrence Summers, later the administration’s top economist, reportedly said in a memo to the president-elect.

In fact, when you look back at the spending forecast that accompanied the Obama plan, you’ll find something very strange (as we’ve pointed out before).  You’ll find that it spent more than Mr. Krugman said was necessary at the time:

All indications are that the new administration will offer a major stimulus package. My own back-of-the-envelope calculations say that the package should be huge, on the order of $600 billion.

It should be huge, huge I tell you!  $600 billion at least.  We ended up with  $900+ instead new figures show.  It was 50% bigger than Krugman called for but, now, it was “totally inadequate”.

If you, like me, have essentially turned off the one-note bleat from this guy it is because other than calling for more spending he never, ever reviews his work or analyzes the results of someone actually following his advice.  It was huge, it was more than he asked for, and it FAILED.

Has that sunk in yet, Mr. Krugman – your suggestion was less than what was spent and the result was an increase in unemployment and a decrease in economic activity.  That, to most, means the idea of a “huge” amount of deficit spending did not have the effect you and the administration claimed it would.  It. Failed.

Unlike Mr. Krugman, most of us have come to terms with the Einstein definition of insanity and resist doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Obviously that’s not the case with Mr. Paul “one-note” Krugman.  Tuning him out is a perfectly acceptable reaction to his ceaseless call for more deficit spending.

~McQ

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QE2 is unlikely to save the day

In fact, it may set in motion inflationary pressures that will blow up in the Fed’s face.

Randall Wray has put together one of the best summaries I’ve seen on the subject, and it doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy at all.  Essentially QE2 (“quantitative easing”) has the Fed buying up toxic bank assets to push up their excess reserves.  The thinking is that pushing those reserves into excess will stimulate loans.  But it will also stimulate inflation. 

Bernake’s claim is the reserve creation will be “temporary”.  But – and this is the crux of the problem – it will have difficulty buying back those reserves because of the quality of the assets the Fed is sucking up to create them:

Bernanke carefully tries to navigate these waters by agreeing with the hawks that in the long run, Fed creation of too many reserves would be inflationary, but argues that in current circumstances the greater danger is deflation. Still, he reassures markets that reserves creation is temporary, and that the Fed will “exit its accommodative policies at the appropriate time”. Yet, if the Fed buys junk assets that will never have any value, it will not be able to sell these back to markets later — so there is no way to remove the reserves it created when it buys trash.

Indeed.  So without the ability to sell back marketable assets, the reserves remain out there and inflation does too.  You might think “deflation” is the biggest threat until you see run-away inflation reduce your retirement funds to zip and push your wages to poverty level.

This is a mess.  And as we discussed in this week’s podcast, screwing with the economy at the central bank level is very delicate thing and could go wrong quickly and dramatically. 

And what I’m hearing and reading – to include this article – says the possibility of that happening is high.

~McQ

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Stop the war on business

That’s the central theme of a Ken Langone op/ed in the Wall Street Journal. Langone is a co-founder of Home Depot who gives Obama a lecture he’s long deserved. He does a good job of summarizing the absurd rhetoric used by Obama and his administration and the attitude they project that has done nothing to help and everything to hurt the recovery:

Your insistence that your policies are necessary and beneficial to business is utterly at odds with what you and your administration are saying elsewhere. You pick a fight with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing it of using foreign money to influence congressional elections, something the chamber adamantly denies. Your U.S. attorney in New York, Preet Bahrara, compares investment firms to Mexican drug cartels and says he wants the power to wiretap Wall Street when he sees fit. And you drew guffaws of approving laughter with your car-wreck metaphor, recently telling a crowd that those who differ with your approach are "standing up on the road, sipping a Slurpee" while you are "shoving" and "sweating" to fix the broken-down jalopy of state.

That short-sighted wavering—between condescending encouragement one day and hostile disparagement the next—creates uncertainty that, as any investor could tell you, causes economic paralysis. That’s because no one can tell what to expect next.

Again we confront the difference between a politician in a permanent campaign and a leader.  And we see the result.

Obama seems mystified by the role of the president.  He seems not to understand that leaders don’t use the old, divisive and politically charged rhetoric of the campaign trail, but instead have the job of doing (and saying) what is necessary to move things in a positive direction.  That has not been something Obama has done at all when it comes to business.

There’s another point Langone made that is worth featuring:

A little more than 30 years ago, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Pat Farrah and I got together and founded The Home Depot. Our dream was to create (memo to DNC activists: that’s build, not take or coerce) a new kind of home-improvement center catering to do-it-yourselfers. The concept was to have a wide assortment, a high level of service, and the lowest pricing possible.

We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.

If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it’s a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase—never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.

Regulations, taxes, compliance and mandates cost businesses billions each year.  That’s billions that aren’t spent on employees, customers, expansion or growth.  And it is especially stupid to increase all of those in a recession – yet that’s precisely what is going on now.  And it keeps the market unsettled and at least defers or may in fact kill any possible action by businesses which may benefit the overall economy.

Obama’s actions and rhetoric are a case study of someone who doesn’t understand his job, doesn’t understand the power of the words he utters (because he doesn’t understand his job) and has been very irresponsible with his rhetoric at a time when the damage that rhetoric can do are compounded by the situation (recession).

OJT is not something a president should be doing – especially in a recession.  And for the supposed “smartest guy in the room”, he sure seems like a slow learner when it comes to his job and the requirements of leadership.

~McQ

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Looking at the PPI

Today’s release of the Producer Price Index raises some interesting and scary questions. The core PPI was up only 0.1%, but a 1.2% increase in good prices and a 0.5% increase in energy prices brought the overall PPI up by 0.4%.

Now, the reason that food and energy are excluded from the core PPI and CPI is that they often show a lot of monthly volatility. Those prices simply rise and fall quickly, so, on a month-to-month basis, they may not mean much. Ultimately, however, a trend of price increases in, say, energy will trend to raise prices across the board, as that increases the cost of production.

The traditional Keynesian argument about inflation is that it tends to decrease when the economy is struggling, as aggregate demand is stifled. Sadly, in the 1970’s we learned that simply wasn’t true, and the existence of stagflation sent the Keynesians back to the drawing board for about 15 years to reformulate a Neo-Keynesian economic model. Essentially what happened in the late 60’s and early 70’s was that the Fed pursued a very accomodative monetary policy. Ultimately, even a slow economy couldn’t prevent that monetary expansion from showing up as inflation.

Sound familiar?

It should, because the housing boom was kicked off by a similar policy, and since the collapse, the Fed has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing”, i.e., buying $1.2 trillion of securities with hastily printed money. Overall, the monetary base has more than doubled over the past two years, also, as the Fed has kept short-term interest rates at 0%.

So, I guess the question is whether today’s PPI is just a monthly outlier due to the volatile sectors, or whether it’s a sign that monetary expansion is beginning to kick off an inflationary spike that will soon begin to show up in the CPI as real, noticeable inflation.